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A Black Woman’s Voice in Kendrick’s Humble (Erasure Poem)
A bit of background – the idea for this post came after all the noise after Kendrick released his song “Stay Humble’.
I’m generally a fan of Kendrick Lamar, but I am not one to track new music. When the song came out, I was a bit confused because my first exposure to it was this meme put on social media by a friend
I went and watched the video and posted this right after on my friends wall:
We spoke briefly in the last post about womanhood and it’s connection to “empowerment” (well at least we did before I deleted the post after realizing dood was just another person who claimed to ’empower’ women but actually didn’t want to listen to the women he was purported to be empowering…AWKWARDDDDDDDDD, yet unsurprising), but this time, I want to talk about the experience of ‘womanhood’ ina Black woman’s body. About how too often we are told how to woman (even in places that are supposed to be ’empowering’ us to be themselves) or are subject to scrutiny, insult, assault and at times, even death (See #MenAreTrash campaign currently ongoing in South Africa). I want to talk about what it really means to exist in a Black woman’s body that is constantly being told how it should be in order to be respected, seen, heard or appreciated by people of all genders and races and cultures.
This is for colored girls who’ve committed to being themselves, when the bullshit was too much.
When I entered puberty, I had an understanding of womanhood as biology. I’d struggled through the puzzle of girlhood, but assumed if my body changed and I pieced myself together in the “right” way, I too could become a perfect picture of womanhood. I foolishly thought my identity struggles with womanhood would end once people started to visibly read me as a girl/woman. I soon realized that womanhood was a constant battle to reaffirm myself both in body and mind. That people were more interested in telling me how to woman, then in letting me exist as a woman and explore my womanhood.
I lead a writing workshop where I ask people to explore the origins of their associations with parts of their identity. I ask women to write about the first time they felt like/identified with the experience of ‘womanhood’ without defining the term for them. I’ve never had a woman struggle to identify a moment, but I’ve struggled with their answers. I’ve struggled with how the overwhelming majority of their remembrances have to do with loss, with taking and with being told how to or how to not woman. I struggle with the reality that for so many I’ve worked with, the recognition of their ‘womanhood’ is not through an intentional process of growth and reflection, but a response to being treated unfairly or stigmatized or having their intellect challenged because of their gender. Through these workshops, I’ve realized too many women’s socialization into womanhood is about carving away at their basic humanity.
As a Black Kenyan woman, I think about how my identity as an African or a Black person historically erases my access to womanhood because those identities weren’t considered human. Sadly, so many Black women have had to fight for our particular brand of womanhood to be recognized that for some, we fear the expanding of its definition as a process of erasure for us and so we too have begun to tell people how to ‘properly’ woman. I’ve been there. I’ve been the woman whose told other women how to be in order to be respected or treated ‘right’ not realizing how fucked up that language and mindset is. In the post “Control” (where we talk about our experiences as women who are survivors of sexual violence), I wrote
“I think about how Black women I know police themselves not out of trying to achieve some fucked up depiction of ‘Queenhood’, but out of general concerns for their safety and the stories they fear their bodies tell other simply by virtue of existence. Sometimes, when I hear Black women talking about how other Black women dress and generally hoe shaming other Black women, I hear a sense of fear and desperation. Of clinging to a particular notion of patriarchal safety that tells them if they are woman in a particular way, they will not be punished (through violence, shit talking etc) for being women. But the reality is, choosing a certain kind of womanhood doesn’t make you any safer, it just gives you an illusion of safety. While some may make you more of a target based on what you wear, the reality is that all women’s bodies are susceptible to violence in this society we’ve created whether you’re wearing a nun’s outfit or walking around butt naked…”
I wrote about it abstractly there, but I want to center myself for one moment as one of those women who told other women how to be not realizing I was just voicing my own frustrations with what society’s definition of womanhood has or had not afforded me.
Ironically, as someone who used to tell women how to be, I would not be the woman I am today if I had listened to other people who told me how to woman, especially those who told me how to be an ‘African woman’ (This is something I’ve really struggled with because Africans like to do that annoying thing where everything they like about you they attribute to your Africanness and everything they dislike is the Western/American influence on you -_-).
And ain’t it funny? That in rejecting people’s notions of womanhood I finally discovered what it truly meant for me? That’s why I advocate so hard and so vocally for women to be allowed the space to just BE, so they can figure out what womanhood means to and for them, and so they can exist as not just as we think of as women, but as full human beings.
Unfortunately, too many people are still telling women how to be in order to be respected instead of letting them be and respecting them regardless. Too many people are doing this and calling it empowerment.
I’ve been thinking alot about empowerment and why I am so tired of it and I realized I am tired of women’s ‘empowerment’ because I am tired of what it means at its core to be a woman in present day – to be systematically and socially disempowered.
I am tired of how we socialize girls and women into disempowerment, then tell them to express their womanhood in order to regain a power that should never have been taken away from them.
The central problem for me with telling us how to be is that if we are not that way, it removes the assumed protections of womanhood from our bodies and being. So often this kind of woman that is to be protected is sloppily categorized as a ‘good’ woman without the recognition that that is a subjective term. Also, too often people’s ability to sympathize or empathize with the plight of women is centered around the recognition of humanity of the women in their lives and the proximity of violence to them (I guess this is where the saying ‘watch how a man treats his mother’ comes from). It is our relationship to a patriarchal lineage that keeps us safe, not the recognition of our innate worth and ability to say ‘no’ (that’s why some women resort to telling men that are aggressively (or not so) hitting on them that they have a boyfriend. Even when the man is not present, men still reverse women more in relationship to their / another’s male hood).
how you treat a woman should
never be based on her proximity to
perhaps she is someone’s daughter.mother.sister.wife.
(perhaps even yours)
so many girls are brought up hungry to receive
the reverence relations to men offer,
so many girls grow into women starved
of their own humanity.
Women are human beings and our humanity is expressed in different ways. But we divorce womanhood from humanity and wonder at its marriage to oppression. Womanhood, despite what we’re often told, is not femininity. It is not beauty. It is not body parts. Womanhood can, has been and still is those things to many women, but it is also not those things to so many other women. Sometimes it is less, sometimes it is more. But whatever the woman lands on, it is still woman.
If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive. – Audre Lorde
The good Lorde reminds us how important self identification is in a Black woman’s body. Melissa Harris-Perry talks about the Crooked Room of expectations that Black women are forced to stand in that also threatens to distort or crush our being.
My crooked room is weighed down by femininity. By the belief that women should be obedient and quiet. I am tired so often because I am standing upright in a crooked world and constantly pushing back on against the walls trying to shape with my being against other people’s expectations.
It is disorienting, it is exhausting, but recently I’ve been able to see how many other Black women I’ve surrounded myself with are standing tall in their crooked rooms and it makes my spine stand a little stronger each time.
Honestly, I had written about a specific incident of violence that just happened to me illustrate some of my points, but I’m sitting in an airport in Germany and realizing again, I’m tired. Tired in body, in spirit. Tired of even having to explain this so I’ll just end with this…
Y’all better start letting us women live (literally and figuratively). This isn’t a question or a request.
It is a demand built on the foundation of our shared humanity.
-DENISIO TRUITT –
Denisio: Mwende and I often trade who comes up with what theme to write about for our posts. This week I suggested we discuss womanhood and what it is to live in a black woman’s body, the geography of which is perpetually mapped, surveyed, and made claimed to by nearly everyone except black women themselves. It was a thought that arose when I first heard Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE” and it was made even more apparent a few weeks back in an incident dealing with an image where I privately opened up about something incredibly personal, my anxiety disorder, as it pertained to an image of my body, and was essentially ignored. I knew it was something I’ve been wanting to write about but even up until this moment, the words just aren’t coming. Perhaps I don’t know how to begin or where to start. How can I begin to explain how incredibly beautiful and exhausting it is, this black womanhood? This thing which so many people (and very often men) feel they have the right to assess, criticize and define.
I had ideas about discussing the (now old) Kendrick controversy, my own run-ins with toxic masculinity and men attempting to police and dictate my womanhood and the ways I choose to express it but to be honest, I can’t bring myself to expend the emotional labor needed to write out that essay. I am exhausted. And I am tired of centering masculinity when talking about my black womanhood. As though it isn’t work enough to simply exist as Black Woman in America.
While typing that last sentence, I am immediately reminded of a recent post by a friend on Facebook:
When I saw that post I thought of the generations of women in my family and what womanhood must have meant/means to them. So for this post, I’m going to present three vignettes, based on my grandmother, my mother, and myself. This is an idea that I’ve been wanting to work with for quite some time now and that I eventually intend to base a three volume collection of poetry on. So yeah, basically treating this post as my own rough sketch for a concept I want to one day fully execute. Cop out? Prolly.
*NOTE: My grandmother transitioned in 2004 and my mom is super African so she doesn’t really open up that much about her past. So the first two vignettes are simply my observations based on past conversations with my grandmother and mother and other family members. They very well may feel differently. *
I. The Grandmother
She was small in stature yet her presence could fill a room with warm undulating energy. She was round and soft and full like plums that hung from the trees in her front yard. Sweet but firm when she needed to be. Her face never lost its childish quality even well into her 60’s when her body began to fail. Her hair was long, and she wore it neatly in two rope-like plaits she wrapped around her head in a halo. She was in fact angelic, her aura peaceful as the coolness of the back of her hand when checking for fevers. For her, bearing seven children and mothering countless others was the foundation of her black woman identity. Womanhood was not a badge of honor nor something to be celebrated. It was something that simply needed to be done, like ironing the sheets to kill any ticks or biting insects that may have fallen in when they were hung to dry.
Being a woman meant strength because it meant putting the needs of others above yourself. It meant that her god, husband, little ones received her undivided attention, love, and care. For her, womanhood is an endless sacrifice but one she gives lovingly.
II. The Mother
She was always beautiful. From early childhood people would talk about the beauty of the Sayeh sisters, each one a different deep sparkly hue like a multi-colored strand of gems. She is the garnet with red undertones. A middle child, she is the tallest of the sisters, her body leaner and less curvy. She has her mother’s soft round eyes and full down-turned mouth. They make her look sad and pouty even when she is livid. They make her smiles seem more measured and uncertain.
As a child she is a tomboy. She hates dresses and ruffles and opts for short sets and pants instead. She’d rather hang with her brothers though they find her to be a nuisance. As a teenager she rejects the womanhood ideals of her mother and her mother’s mother. It’s the 70’s and the world is changing. African women are beginning to question, to challenge, to dissent. She promises herself she will never let a man control or dictate her life. After ending her marriage and moving to Maryland with a young child, she never does.
Womanhood for her is about independence and strength. It is rough like her hands after years of working in an orthodontist lab. It is hard thankless work, a fact she learned from her mother. It is sensible and made of cotton, there are no frills or pink lace. Like her mother, she will make countless sacrifices for the sake of her child. She has no real interest in solidarity or causes though she will, for the most part, consider herself a feminist.
III. The Daughter
She was a sullen child and teen. Even to this day, she can’t bring herself to smile in photos. The stretching of her mouth and bearing of teeth feels more hostile than joyous. She loves to laugh, loves the way her stomach muscle contract and the vibrations that rattle her chest but can’t feel joy the way other’s do because of what doctors will tell her is a chemical imbalance. It sometimes makes life feel like a room that is too dimly lit.
At an early age she knows she likes girls and boys but is afraid to tell her mother. Not because she thinks her mother will disapprove but rather because her mother has so much else to worry about. She doesn’t know many other queer teens at her school so she settles for secret hand-holding and kissing girls in the woods next to her middle school and then in the locker room in high school. Looking back it always sounds more romantic and sexy to her than it actually felt.
None of the girls will hold her hand or kiss her at school because they all have boyfriends. They are all straight, or at least that’s what they tell her when she asks them out. So she sets out to get a boyfriend. She ditches her coke bottle glasses, board shorts, and jumbo braids for midriff tops, burgundy lipstick, contacts, and a Dominican blow-out. She goes to a party wearing a tiny skirt and heels and everyone tells her how hot she is. How tiny her waist is. How pretty that lipstick looks. She has never heard these words directed at her. It makes her head swim and her body feel warm and electric. A boy asks to dance with her and then another and then a girl. By the end of the party, her legs and feet hurt from dancing, and the world feels like it’s on a see-saw from the cheap brandy she’s consumed. She is hooked.
She begins to rely heavily on the approval of lovers to define her womanhood. She will convince others that she is using her sexuality as empowerment, because she is a different kind of feminist from her mother, but deep down she’s just trying to chase that high. That first time feeling at a high school basement party where her classmates saw her as a woman and not the gangly geeky art nerd. At this point in her life Womanhood is sticky, sweet, and smells like Clinique Happy.
When she is married the first time her dangerous and wild teen self will fade into a husk of a woman, afraid of her own shadow. She can’t move, pinned between the expectations of her family and her own expectations of what a good life is. He disapproves of her brand of womanhood so she shows less cleavage and tones down the makeup as much as she can. When she gains too much weight, he alerts her of it and she corrects it by starving herself for 3 months straight and frantically working out. He doesn’t notice nor does he recall ever telling her he was not attracted to her plumper physique. At this point Womanhood feels like a rigged game. A fixed carnival toss meant to make you feel in control when in fact the bottles are glued to the box. The house always wins. He will try to bend her into what he needs but instead she breaks. He doesn’t mean to but it happens anyways. She will resent him for changing, for “growing up”. She will eventually leave him and they both move on fairly quickly, relieved to end that decade.
Years later and in a new marriage she is still learning. She possesses her grandmother’s caring ways but also her mother’s toughness, particularly when it comes to addressing men. For her womanhood is expansive and inclusive. It has very little to do with her vagina or her ability to give birth because there are many women without a vagina or who cannot/do not wish to give birth. She recognizes it is about community but will struggle with her own anxieties around social settings. It’s about accepting all of the parts of her, her queerness, her blackness, her mental disorders. It is about enjoying her sensuality for herself, rather than a play to put on for others. It is about growth and sisterhood….REAL sisterhood, like speaking up for and standing up for other women. Womanhood is not a silent thing and that will be hard for her at times because she is a naturally quiet person. She will find her voice. She is finding her voice.
Noirlinians is a love story by two wandering Daughters of the African diaspora